Mindset and Gene Expression
Genes and Health
Most of us believe that we are stuck with the genes we are born with. However, there are now evidences that we can influence our genes and get healthier. Let’s understand what do we mean by influencing our genes. In simple words, it means influencing the expression of our genes; it means switching on or off the activity of our genes.
It is not the normal genes that cause diseases, but it is the disease-causing gene mutation that gives the possibility of causing a particular disease. A mutation is an error/fault/defect in the normal genes, which disrupts the functions of the genes. Researchers have stated:
“Only 5% of disease-related gene mutations are fully deterministic, while 95% can be influenced.”
There are two major types of mutation:
1. Hereditary mutations, that which are inherited from a parent.
2. Acquired mutations, that which are developed during one’s lifetime due to various environmental factors and high stress, especially emotional stress.
Now whether normal-good genes will be switched on or off; or the diseasing-causing mutated genes will be switched on or off – will depend on various factors.
What are Genes?
Our bodies are made up of tissues, tissues are made up of cells. There are around 40 trillion human cells. At the middle of these cells are something like control centres called nucleus. Nucleus normally contains 23 pairs of chromosomes that means, total 46 chromosomes, which are made up of DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid).
A gene is a stretch or a section of DNA. It is a hereditary unit of DNA, by which genetic information is passed from parent to offspring. There are around 23,000 human genes. We can't change the genotype but the phenotype is mediated by the choices that we make, especially our thoughts. Genotype is our full hereditary information, it is the set of genes in our DNA which is responsible for a particular trait; whereas phenotype is the physical expression, or characteristics, of that information or that particular trait. We cannot change our physical characteristics, but when it comes to health – Yes!
Factors Determining Gene Expression
Now there are many factors in our environment that determine which genes get expressed. They include the food we eat, the water we drink, the quality of the air we breathe, the amount of sun exposure we have, the amount of sleep we get, whether we exercise, whether we smoke, whether we do drugs, and so forth. These are the tangible factors.
There are quite a few intangible factors as well that alter the activity of our genes. They are our thoughts, our beliefs, our emotions, our stress levels, the quality of our personal relationships, and our social interactions. Earlier these intangible factors were hardly considered important with regard to gene expression.
But now, recent genetic research shows that stress; especially our emotional stress and our thought patterns have great influence on our gene expression. In other words, our mind has got a big role to play whether the so-called good (normal) or bad (disease-causing) genes are switched on or off.
What if you are told that you could change your body with your mind? Maybe that sounds far-fetched? Centuries ago, nobody understood from a scientific point of view, how meditation and mind control could benefit us. Nobody in the scientific realm could measure how they worked at all. Eventually, using technology, biologists and psychologists proved how our thoughts can affect physiological factors. What is once seen as science fiction sometimes becomes science fact. Influencing one’s genes only with thoughts might one day be an entirely new scientific field of study and research. As stress and negative emotions impact our gene expression negatively; similarly, relaxation, peace and positive emotions can impact our gene expression positively.
Scientific evidences may one day categorically show that positive thoughts, all by itself, can also fight disease and repair cells. A life of positive thinking and happiness can change our health and gene expression positively. We still don’t have definitive answers on how our genes are switched on or off by our thoughts; but yogis and meditators know that how we think about ourselves and about life impacts our physical body.
Genes and Cancer Research
The big C is one of the biggest health concerns for modern human beings. The disease has existed since time immemorial, but our modern lifestyle has contributed to the increase in cases. As, it’s not a recent disease, we humans have dealt with it for as long as we can remember. But pollution, sugar and junk food including refined carbohydrates, chronic stress, trans fats, radiation, are just some influencing factors that our ancestors did not have to deal with. Any one of these factors has the ability to change how our genes express themselves.
Cancer is a disease that spreads through gene cell alterations. Anything that can alter our cells has the potential to add to the spread of this disease. But what if we could reverse the effects? The American Association for Cancer Research looked at DNA methylation, which is a mechanism whereby a methyl (a hydrocarbon group of atoms) is added to DNA to modify gene expression. This research findings gave clear indications of DNA methylation’s efficacy in cancer research. There is evidence to suggest diet can influence methylation. Some drugs have an affect too. What about our thoughts?
The Mind-Body Connection
We’re only beginning to comprehend the mind-body connection. It’s possible that in the future, people will be able to use thought therapies to alter biological processes, which some people are already doing. One can say, it’s just a theory. But facts are just theories that have yet to be proven wrong as yet, or maybe never.
The simplest demonstration that we do influence our genes by our thoughts is the placebo effect, in which an inert substance behaves like a real drug. When we are given a placebo pain killer, the mere belief that this pill has the power to relieve pain causes us to generate real endogenous molecules (our own opioids) which actually do block pain. This demonstrates that the
genetic machinery can be turned on or off by thoughts.
Our thoughts are responsible for chemical changes in our brains, followed by chemical changes in our bodies. So, we can confidently say that our thoughts are chemical processes, which impacts our bodies. And chemical processes can be created, changed, and destroyed. Chemical reactions influence our genes; hence, it doesn’t take much of a leap of faith to imagine that our mindset can influence our genes.
Examples are the calming effect and reduction of lactic acid brought about by meditation (Wallace RK, Benson H. The physiology of meditation. 1972). Or the therapeutic effects of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy in changing one's negative (stress causing) thoughts into positive (more productive) interpretations. Changes in perceived stress levels have a dramatic effect on cortisol production (see Robert Sapolsky Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers).
Harvard scientists have come up with evidence that the mere act of clearing our minds for 15 minutes each day actually alters our genes expression. Clearing our minds can be done by talking to our friends and family members, especially our loved ones who understand us. Best would be to talk to a qualified therapist.
A study by Dr. Herbert Benson and others indicated that people who meditate regularly have reduced blood pressure, reduced inflammation, etc. due to modulation of gene expression.
Besides meditation, there are many other ways to clear our minds, like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Positive Thinking Training, and so forth.
Beliefs, Thoughts and Emotions/Feelings
Our beliefs, thoughts and emotions are the signals to our genes.
Our beliefs can indeed determine our biology. If we believe that our bodies can heal, that we can be healthy and strong - our genes would respond to these beliefs. If we think, we have bad genes, that our disease needs healing outside ourselves - our genes would respond to that as well. Just because cancer, heart disease, or any other health issue run in our families, it does not mean that we have to struggle with it. Our genes and bodies will respond to the beliefs we hold.
Thinking changes gene expressions in cells of our brains and the rest of our bodies. This, in turn changes the structure, function, and the health of our bodies. Toxic thinking is one of the worst things we can do to switch off good genes and switch on the so-called bad genes.
Feelings such as guilt, grudge, grief, anger, fear, worry, stress, etc. harm the normal functioning of our bodies by altering gene activity negatively. Whereas feelings such as hope, faith, forgiveness, love, peace, joy, happiness, gratitude, and such emotions, heal our bodies by modulating the activity of genes positively.
The thoughts we think and the emotions we feel are constantly reshaping our DNA and influencing gene expression. Our thoughts and our beliefs have a larger impact on our DNA and health than we ever imagined - and the evidence continues to grow.
So What Needs to be Done?
First of all, we need to look within ourselves to identify our inner, deep-rooted negative or bad feelings. These feelings are usually due to our limiting or negative beliefs, which must have developed because of some bad or painful past experiences. As aforesaid, negative feelings harm the normal functioning of our bodies by altering gene activity negatively and causing disease.
Hence, it becomes very important for us to do away with our limiting beliefs so that we can change our feelings positively. For that, we need to first establish our goal or desire. Here in this case, it would be, let’s say “near perfect health” or “healing of some illness.” Then, we need to find out what are the limiting or negative beliefs that are stopping us from achieving that goal.
Thereafter, we need to question/confront/challenge these beliefs. We can only conquer our limiting beliefs by confronting them. The reason they grow so troublesome for us in the first place is simply that they go unchallenged. We often “assume” them without question. Rather than deal with the struggle of this confrontation, we develop an almost co-dependent relationship with them. We guard our limiting beliefs and justify them if they are ever questioned. But our beliefs will continue to grow and strengthen unless we challenge them. Actually, we need to question ourselves that the limiting beliefs we are so strongly holding... are they really true? If this is a difficult process for you to do by yourself, a psychological counselor can be helpful.
Besides challenging our negative or limiting beliefs, we as well need to consider the consequences of these beliefs. What all can happen to our health if we continue with our negative beliefs, knowing that negative beliefs and emotions impact our gene activity negatively.
Next, we need to let go of the past, that means releasing those limiting beliefs and thereby those bad self-destructive feelings. This can only happen when we understand the power of forgiveness and are ready to forgive everyone for everything, including ourselves. Simultaneously, we need to substitute these limiting beliefs with empowering beliefs. These new empowering or positive beliefs should be reinforced by repetition.
Finally, we need to think about what we want, that is our desire; and not about what we don’t want, that is our fear.
We need to keep our minds focused on our goal i.e., Health!
Let your medical doctor take care of your illness, if you have one; and you take care of your wellness. Health is our responsibility! We need to develop faith in the power of Persistent Positive Thinking (PPT).
You can combine positive thinking with meditation; we can call it “Positive Meditation,” which can include all that we have learnt so far. And this positive meditation can be done couple of times a day for influencing your gene expression positively. And for best results, in the course of the day, be mindfully aware of your feelings, thoughts and behavior; and try to control or manage them for peace, harmony and happiness.
Always remember – Feeling of LOVE Heals!